Attack of the Palm Oil Plantation

Nearly 11% of the world’s remaining rainforests exist in Malaysia and Indonesia. However, Indonesia only holds about 2% of the world’s entire landmass. The result of this phenomenon is that Indonesia contains a mass amount of the world’s biodiversity within an exceptionally small amount of space.

Barges run up and down the rivers of Kalimantan near Banjarmasin, transporting a variety of products originating in the area's forests. (Anna DeVries/ Indonesiaful)

Barges run up and down the rivers of Kalimantan near Banjarmasin, transporting a variety of products originating in the area’s forests. (Anna DeVries/ Indonesiaful)

Yet, the forests of Southeast Asia have the highest relative rate of deforestation compared to any other region in the world. This is contrary to popular belief, which puts countries in South America at the forefront of the battle between industrial development and tropical rainforest preservation. African Oil Palm (Elaeis guineensis), native to West Africa, and the American Oil Palm (Elaeis oleifera), native to Central and South America, are the two culprits of this mass assault on Indonesia’s rainforests.

Indonesia is the world’s number one producer of palm oil. Between 1990 and 1995, nearly 56% of the world’s palm oil could trace its origins back to the once rainforest-covered landscapes of Kalimantan and Sumatra. Indonesia plans to double its palm oil production by the year 2020. This plan causes conservationists and environmental activists around the globe to take interest in Indonesia’s biodiversity.

Yet, the forests with the highest amounts of value for biodiversity in Indonesia are also the forests most commonly targeted by industrial palm enterprises. The lowland forests of Indonesia are suspected to contain some of the most unique and rare species in the world, but also host a pretty penny for agricultural development.

Palm oil is found in most foods today. As the saying goes, “palm oil is to the world what high fructose corn syrup is to the U.S.A.” However, the international movement to avoid foods containing palm oil has just begun. Many foods labeled organic, natural, or with no preservatives actually contain high amounts of palm oil. Consumers seeking to buy more sustainable foods from places such as Whole Foods or Trader Joes in the U.S.A. should check and double-check their labels, as some “natural foods” often support the destruction of the world’s most valued forests. Palm oil can be found in a variety of foods — from breads, crackers, and nuts, to ice cream and other dairy products. One can even find it in natural hair products, makeup, and body soaps.

The situation becomes more difficult when the lack of regulation in labeling is taken into account. Palm oil is labeled under the following names in products around the globe:

  • Vegetable Oil
  • Vegetable Fat
  • Sodium Laureth Sulfate (in almost everything that foams)
  • Sodium Lauryl Sulfate
  • Sodium Dodecyl Sulphate (SDS or NaDS)
  • Palm Kernel
  • Palm Oil Kernel
  • Palm Fruit Oil
  • Palmate
  • Palmitate
  • Palmolein
  • Glyceryl Stearate
  • Stearic Acid
  • Elaeis Guineensis
  • Palmitic Acid
  • Palm Stearine
  • Palmitoyl oxostearamide
  • Palmitoyl tetrapeptide
  • Steareth -2
  • Steareth -20
  • Sodium Kernelate
  • Sodium Palm Kernelate
  • Sodium Lauryl Lactylate/Sulphate
  • Sodium Lauryl Sulfoacetate
  • Hydrated Palm Glycerides
  • Sodium Isostearoyl Lactylaye
  • Cetyl Palmitate
  • Octyl Palmitate
  • Cetyl Alcohol
  • Palmityl Alcohol

So what can you do?

Educate yourself, educate others, and then do it all over again.

The battle is happening in two places. First, within countries like Indonesia, organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund, the Nature Conservancy, and the World Resource Institute are campaigning and researching possible mitigation strategies for future palm oil development. Second, the ultimate power is in consumer choice. If the world stops purchasing products and foods with palm oil, demand will decrease and production will stop. The next time you go to the store, check your labels and become a smart consumer, because “we have not inherited the earth from our ancestors, we have only borrowed it from our children” (Chinese Proverb).

About the author: Adam Miller is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Pontianak, West Kalimantan. In his free time he enjoys doing anything and everything related to the outdoors, playing sports with his students, eating wonderful Pontianak cuisine, and finding ways to disguise himself from his students who find him wherever he goes.

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